You are Your Facebook Profile
In 2010, Facebook unveiled the now ubiquitously applied feature of instant personalization. While many users aren’t always aware of the introduction of new features on Facebook, this one in particular has so drastically transformed the way we experience the web outside of Facebook that it can’t help but be noticed.
For those unfamiliar with the term “instant personalization,” the basic function is to tailor your experience of any website compatible with the feature by means of information gathered from your Facebook profile. On a music website, such as Pandora, your favourite music might be playing when you visit the page.
Public reaction to this feature is often highly critical. Many see it as a misuse or abuse of information, which has been given only to Facebook. Though certain websites will ask users for consent to access personal information on Facebook, many do not and the result is that users often feel violated both by both Facebook and by these websites which seem to know everything about them.
It is, of course, possible to reduce the amount of information Facebook is sharing with these websites. The most direct way is to change your privacy settings from public to private. All the same, instant personalization has revealed the degree to which Facebook is willing to make unilateral decisions regarding the use of personal information, often without consulting users.
But is Facebook really under any compulsion to consult its users about changes in service?
We shouldn’t forget Facebook is, after all, a company. It has an interest in creating a product and in satisfying its stockholders. And yet, the rules governing our understanding of most companies can’t really be transferred seamlessly onto Facebook. While it is, for all intents and purposes, a company, Facebook does something more than simply making a better car or burger.
Facebook is transforming the very core of how we interact with and understand the world by means of two distinct, interrelated products.
The first product is what we, the users, interact with on a daily basis. It is the Facebook profile, news feed, photo-tagging and the Timeline. This is the product that allows us to connect with others, mark important events in our lives, plan events and raise awareness about the issues that concern us.
The second product is the data derived from our use of Facebook. It is the body of knowledge about us, as users, derived from the pages we like, the photos we post and the comments we make. It is, in a very real way, the sum total of our online social lives. In this information lay a tremendous amount of power for companies and governments. By interpreting all the data, it is possible to predict what we think, what we want and what we will do.
This second product is what makes Facebook worth $17.89 billion USD as of 2013. It is in the service of this second product that the first product is free to users.
All the same, how does all of this make Facebook different from other companies?
On the surface, Facebook might not seem so different from, for example, phone companies. Telephones allow us to connect with others and we can even extract meaningful, statistical information from telephone records. The parallel seems even more significant when we consider telephones are often tapped or phone records accessed by governments, often resulting in a debate on privacy laws and policy, just as with Facebook. But Facebook does more than just connect us with others.
Facebook allows us to project ourselves outside of ourselves.
While this may seem to be giving Facebook too much credit, we just need to consider what features like Timeline and instant personalization actually mean.
For Timeline, Facebook invites users to document their entire experience as human beings. It invites users to do so not only when big, life events occur but even when smaller events occur, like the purchase of a new instrument or a night out with friends.
Instant personalization is a complementary feature to things like Timeline. Where Timeline offered users the chance to project themselves onto the internet, instant personalization is opening up the possibility of a web that responds to and accommodates what we project onto it.
There are, of course, important questions to be asked when it comes to these features. The biggest question is whether or not we give Facebook too much power, both in terms of knowing us and in terms of Facebook’s consequent control over how we experience the web. Yet, time and time again, apparent breaches of privacy are answered with tacit consent.
Whenever Facebook unveils a new feature, there are initially complaints and then we adapt and can’t imagine our social media experience without it. Now, two years after the introduction of instant personalization, few even comment on it. It would seem we value the connectivity and experience of the web Facebook provides us more than we value our privacy.
In a very real way, features like instant personalization are making the web into an extension of our very selves rather than merely something we visit. Instant personalization and features like it are transforming the web into a place where we actually exist, rather than simply a place where we project ourselves.
There is a qualitatively different web emerging when, not only is there information about us on the web but, there is a web that evolves and changes with us. Instant personalization and the power of the web to adapt to us is precisely that. It is different because the web is no longer a place holding information but a place that creates it. Pandora, for instance, might not play merely a song that you like, but a song that it thinks you might like.
Of course, these are still the early days of social media and it is overstating the point to suggest instant personalization is, at this point, much more than a tool for improving the quality of a service. Yet it does show us Facebook is a company like no other and the implications of the services it develops go far beyond those of most traditional companies. Whether or not we deserve a say in how Facebook operates is an open question but, it is worth mentioning how deeply Facebook may be changing the way we live.